Review: Terraforming Mars (Board Game) – Doing a better job than Mark Watney
Bill Nye is one of my personal heroes. Between him, and people like Brian Cox and Neil de Grasse Tyson, a new front is being pursued in the realms of space travel. They are, between them, helping forward a new and revived interest in the stars, renewing a hope in the Final Frontier. They are inspiring millions across the globe.
The board game world, like so many other hobbies, has not been untouched by this. There have been games springing up on the market, science fiction games, that are straying ever closer to the realms of science inevitable fact. One such game plays on the same premise as films like The Martian and the missions people like Elon Musk are putting forward in the not too distant future. It aims to answer the question – what would it be like to make the red planet habitable for human life. That game is Terraforming Mars.
The Premise of Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars is a 1-5 player eurogame, designed by Jacob Fryxelius, based around the notion that corporations (think Space X) are all aiming to make Mars as hospitable as possible. The whole game is based around a simple concept – that there are three basic factors that result in a successfully terraformed planet: Oxygen, Temperature, and Water. All three are needed and balanced in their own ways, and once optimum conditions have been reached for Mars the game can end. Mars has been terraformed. We can all eat cake.
The goal of the players is to introduce different technologies to Mars, heating it up and terraforming it into somewhere people can live. To do this the player/s must build cities, grow shrubbery, and all in all become the biggest, baddest, corporation on the Martian planet.
Each turn the players use credits to purchase cards that they want to play from a hand they have drawn, comprising of events, technology, and all kinds of other goodies that may make Mars awesome. To be played those cards have to be purchased again using resources (which sounds a bit odd, but bear with me). Some have valuable effects, some have instantaneous ways they change the game, and some just build on the development of more resources. These cards often help contribute towards the victory conditions of the game, helping create oxygen or raising the temperature of Mars. Once those victory conditions are met, the game goes for one more round and then ends.
These cards are really nice and thematic, with everything from introducing basic Bacteria to the planet to events like Meteor Strikes causing damage to others. A few cards allow for specific cities to be built on Mars, increasing real estate on the Red Planet, as well as for additional Water to be placed in strategic places.
Of course, each of the players plays as a corporation, each with their own effects (unless you are playing as the beginner corporation in which case they are fairly standard) and each competing to be profitable. Each one competing for prestige (TR or Terraform Rating) in the form of points that create the starting point of their endgame scoring. This is a really nice mechanic as it means the endgame doesn’t start on equal footing, but instead gives players the chance to prove their worth as they play the game.
The point being, however (before going on a slight tangent there) these prestige points show how popular you are with your investors back home as well.
Throughout the game, it is possible for players to also sponsor awards, depending on how confident they are they will do the best in any given area at the end of the game. These awards are not put into play until they get sponsored, making them optional (if not a bit risky) victory conditions.
This corporate element is a really nice twist in the game. Where Terraforming Mars could have easily been a game about just making Mars habitable, the added corporate element brings a realistic touch to the topic. It makes Terraforming Mars a game that is as much about economics as it is about nature, technology, and space.
So, each turn you gather resources and spend them accordingly on whatever you believe best for your organisation. It may be in your interest to aim to raise the temperature, or it may be more your interest to raise oxygen levels instead. Maybe you want to improve your own offering, or maybe you want to damage your opponents instead. Through having this additional dynamic, the notion of Martian economy, the game is far more competitive. Yes, you may all be working towards a similar goal, but to do that you can all adopt vastly different approaches.
The Quality and Components of Terraforming Mars
In case you hadn’t guessed by this point in the review, I am a fan of Terraforming Mars. It has a lot to offer as a game; however, it does have one big downside. Like too many groundbreaking eurogames (ahem, Castles of Burgundy) the game itself is an ugly one.
The board to Terraforming Mars is, for want of a better word, fine; however, the cards often feel disjointed with their art styles. This didn’t particularly detract from the game; however, if there was a bit more consistency between the different cards in the game then that wouldn’t go amiss. Instead, quite often, there will be artistic styled cards, next to cards that look like photographs taken in someone’s garden. The cards are also fairly thin.
Likewise, the physical resource components are all the same bar the credits. They are all represented by transparent cubes in the player colour. Where having lots of different components would have been expensive, the lack of variety is noticeable in a resource management game.
One thing that split our gaming group were the cubes used for the credits. They are somewhat garish gold, silver, and bronze cubes. Personally, I actually liked them; however, other members of the group felt like they were cheap and out of place. They would have preferred die-cut cardboard. That being said, I thought they felt like space blankets, and that was cool.
The box insert is dire – namely because there isn’t one.
That all being said, it is not all doom and gloom. Ultimately, a good game cannot be made bad by mismatched art (unless it is really really really bad art) and the art doesn’t detract from the game. The board works well, and the cards get their point across. Everything functions (to be frank) adequately, letting the beautiful gameplay shine through…and the gameplay is very well done.
What is it like playing Terraforming Mars?
Terraforming Mars is not an easy game to learn, but it is fantastic to play and smooth once the game gets going. For the first few rounds it will be near impossible to really know what you are doing, unless you are a fairly seasoned player of the game; however, it soon comes into its own. As a player you soon develop a rhythm of understanding what it is you need in order to play the game you want to play.
One of the core things that stands out when playing Terraforming Mars, is just how different all of our styles were and yet how close the scores were at the end of the game. It is a sign of a good eurogame, that there are lots of different ways to win, and yet with Terraforming Mars there are even more ways to win than initially thought. The whole game can become incredibly competitive, yet it is also possible to have absolutely no idea who has won until the game is up and the scores are in due to several different ways of scoring. There are so many ways of scoring, so many ways of getting additional points, that (until the scoring is over) everyone has an equal chance of winning.
The Verdict for Terraforming Mars
It is not a hard decision to make, as to whether to recommend Terraforming Mars or not. Where it does have some obvious downsides, these are mainly aesthetic. I’m not sure it is a game to recommend to new gamers, but instead it is like a gaming gateau. It is a rich slice of gaming enjoyment that some newer gamers may find a bit too much. That being said, more experienced gamers will find it a delight they can enjoy on a regular basis.
All in all, Terraforming Mars is a fun game to play. It is a tile placement game, not dissimilar to Castles of Burgundy but that also has aspects of Power Grid and Stone Age in it as well. If you like eurogames then this could be for you.
Have you played Terraforming Mars? If so, let me know what you thought in the comments below. If not, what do you think to the idea of it? I’d be interested to hear what you think.